NATO and the EU: What Does Brexit Mean for The UK’s Position in European Security?

NATO and the EU: What Does Brexit Mean for The UK’s Position in European Security?

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU last year calls into question the security implications that the split will have. The UK has continued to support NATO as the primary security provider on the continent and has acted at the forefront to reform the organization to better address the changing security environment in Europe. On the other hand, the EU forges on with its efforts to form an autonomous strategic partnership to ensure European security through collective efforts. Without resistance from London, this policy is likely to go ahead creating uncertainty for the future of NATO in Europe and UK’s place in the security of the continent. 

How to Secure Europe? 

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU and its collective security agreements could expose a large rift in opinion of how security should be ensured in Europe. The EU’s push for greater strategic autonomy through its own security policy, stands in contrast to the UK’s continued advocacy for NATO as the primary security provider of the continent.

On the one hand, the UK is likely to push for continued NATO dominance of European security affairs. By spending more on its military budget it is attempting to wrestle more influence from its European partners and cast itself as the go-to partner for Washington in times of crisis. By increasing its influence within the alliance it has been able to push for changes to ensure NATO’s continued viability for the security of Europe.

The UK was at the forefront of changes to the alliance, to ensure that NATO would be able to address the diversifying security environment of Europe. This was namely an increased emphasis on cyberattacks, hybrid warfare, disruptive technologies, space and climate change. In doing so, it has been able to argue the case that the EU’s own Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was largely redundant. Similarly, it cemented the UK’s conviction that the CSDP was another way to achieve greater integration than as a response to any specific security need. The Berlin Agreement in 1998 was consequently a way to obstruct the EU from building its own operational headquarters by instead encouraging it to work with NATO through its already established network of military planners at SHAPE.

On the other hand, countries in the eastern bloc, who have been traditionally wary for the constraints a European security and defence policy would pose, will find it harder to resist pressures from Berlin and Paris. The creation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in 2017, which legally binds participant members to the collective defence of other participants and the European Defence Fund are likely to incentivise change within the bloc.  The UK’s withdrawal therefore comes as a double-edged sword. The removal of London from the equation has meant that the EU can continue to move forward with its autonomous security structure but has also removed a key military player from the union’s arsenal.

Nevertheless, it is not within the EU’s interest to turn its back on NATO altogether. Indeed the halting of the withdrawal of 12,000 US troops from Germany at the end of the Trump administration was a welcome development. It is clear, however, that both Paris and Berlin are likely to oppose the continued hegemony of the US within the alliance. Instead, the two will aim to convince the new Biden administration to support the goal of European strategic autonomy as a means to both ensure more effective burden sharing and to free up US attention as it increasingly concentrates on issues in Asia-Pacific and China.

What Does this Mean for Britain? 

Despite the UK’s continued ambivalence towards the collaborative nature of security on the continent, it will find itself dependent on these initiatives both as a part of NATO and a separate entity.

The first issue is that as NATO begins to diversify its range of security tasks, it will have to rely on EU expertise and resources more.  This has been particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic and cyberattacks such as WannaCry, in which real-time information sharing was vital for NATO military operations and exercises. As cooperation continues to deepen between the two organisations, key players are likely to shift to those with influence in both parties. As a result, the UK will lose influence within collaborative decisions. This is particularly evident, given the EU’s stringent approach to Turkey, who as a part of NATO but not the EU has been confined to consultation on military operations in the Western Balkans.

The second issue is that the EU is likely to become an increasingly important part of the UK’s own security. Despite the initiative of ‘global Britain’, the UK’s security issues remain tied to Europe, whether it be in the form of Russian chemical attacks in Salisbury, attacks by Libyan terrorists in Manchester or the continued illegal immigration that takes place in Calais. As more of these security and defence issues are drawn into the institutional framework of the EU, its decisions are going to be felt more strongly in London. In turn, London will find itself increasingly far removed from the decision process.

The UK will find itself alienated from both decision-making in Washington and Brussels, which will likely play a role in ensuring its own security. With less influence, it will not be able to as effectively put its own concerns on the collective security agenda. This is likely to render the UK less secure in the long run as it increasingly will have to rely on itself to ensure its security.

The Choice Between Sovereignty and Security 

The UK thus finds itself in the position where it can either prevent increased collaboration between NATO and EU or hold back as the two organizations become increasingly intertwined.

The first option will likely ensure that the UK continues to hold a prominent position within decision making both in its ability to act as the mediator between the two groups and as a highly influential member within NATO. It, however, would entail a decrease of security since NATO will be less effective in fulfilling its role without the resources and information it receives from the EU.

The second option is likely to improve security through increased cooperation between the EU and NATO, thus streamlining the sharing of information and resources and improving the efficiency of security operations. In doing so, it will hand greater influence to the countries that are members of both the EU and NATO to mediate their closer collaboration. Already NATO and the EU collaborate on 74 separate areas suggesting that this is the most likely scenario. Without the acceptance of an observer position within EU decision making circles, the UK will find itself further removed from decision-making and less able to influence the collective security agenda.

Nevertheless, the UK shows no sign of going back on its refusal to be part of the security integration projects on the continent. It is therefore likely that it will grow to be a less significant mediator of global security in the future.

Categories: Europe, Security

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